Friday Forum at the University YMCA is a unique tradition that has been taking place at the University of Illinois for over ninety years. Each Friday at noon, a free lecture is given that pertains to a theme that is selected for the semester. Recent themes have included “State of the State” and “Breaking Down Racism.” This semester, the theme is “Building a Better Environmental Movement.” The YMCA is sponsoring this series in conjunction with the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations and the Student Sustainability Committee.

On September 8th, the first lecture of this semester took place, entitled “Standing Rock and the Power of Indigenous Youth Voices.” The lecture featured speakers from the International Indigenous Youth Council (IIYC), a group created in the midst of Standing Rock to organize indigenous youth using education, spirituality, and civic engagement. Thomas Tonatiuh Dominguez-Lopez served as the main speaker. Thomas reflected on how his time at Standing Rock and in the IIYC had changed him, and the importance of the role of indigenous youth not only in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, but in the world itself. At the time of his talk, it had been one year since Thomas had begun his Standing Rock journey. The picture Thomas painted with his words of this journey was extraordinary and vivid. Just by listening to him speak, it felt as if everyone in the room had been transported to North Dakota and was there watching each of the experiences he recounted.

Perhaps the two stories that resonated most were of the treatment of the protestors during the October 27th raid of North Camp and Thomas’ account of his arrest while he led a peaceful prayer, and was the only indigenous person present. The raid of North Camp is what rocketed the events at Standing Rock to national attention because of the brutal treatment of protestors by the Morton County police. Many were arrested, maced, beaten, zip-tied, and placed in dog kennels with numbers on their arms- which it should be noted is not dissimilar to certain things that occurred during the Jewish Holocaust.

The horrors of Standing Rock have been evident for a long time due to media coverage, but listening to them spoken of by someone who was there (and more importantly, by an indigenous person) is moving in a way that almost cannot be described. Thomas’ words were a stark reminder that there is so much work still be done not only to protect the planet, but to protect the safety and rights of so many of the groups of humans that inhabit it. The IIYC is an inspiring group that is working hard to make sure that a safe future for all comes to pass. Thomas said many things that were clearly a call action to all, but personally, the one stuck with me the most is this: “Individually we are just one rock, but together we are mountain.” This was part of a larger proverb attesting to the power of organized community action, and it is an undeniable truth. The arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but it is not individuals who bend it- it is the weight of a mountain.

The Building A Better Environmental Movement Friday Forum Lecture Series will take place each Friday of Fall 2017 at the University YMCA until November 10th. On April 13, 2018, Bill McKibben, famed environmental activist, will speak at the YMCA as a final installment of the series.

Written By Laura Schultz